Reflection on the recent ‘holiday’: Did this Christmas thing actually happen?

Reflection on the recent ‘holiday’: Did this Christmas thing actually happen?

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“What a sad thing it is,” a friend wrote to me last fall, “to see so many young people leaving the church.” But are they? Whenever the point arises, someone invariably replies: “Yes, but they return when they are older.” There have been an impressive number of studies on this question, but they all reach a chilling unanimity. Few of the departees do come back. Nearly all are gone for good. Moreover, the exodus begins in the high school years, not in university. The supporting data are alarming. Examples:

  • If current trends continue, in ten years, church attendance will be half what it is today.
  • 61% of today’s young adults, churched in their teen years, are now spiritually “disengaged.”
  • Intellectual doubt and scepticism is the chief cause of student departures. (Typical comments: “It didn’t make any sense anymore.” “Some stuff is too far-fetched.” “I think scientifically and there is no real proof.” “Too many unanswered questions.”)
  • 70% of teenagers in church youth groups stop attending church after high school.
  • 63% of teenaged Christians don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
  • 51% don’t believe he rose from the dead.
  • 68% don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is real.
  • Only 33% of churched youth say the church will be a part in their adult lives when they leave home.

To recite all these dreary facts might seem an odd way of marking a joyous Christmas, but I have a reason. Over my lifetime, I have no doubt heard about 65 Christmas sermons and twice as many Easter sermons. I can’t remember more than three that dealt with this question: Did The Thing Really Happen? Did Christ really rise from the dead? Was the conception of Jesus in his mother really accomplished without a human father? Was Jesus really God Himself reduced to human terms? Did the death and rising of Jesus really bring about a total change in the relation of God to man and of God to the whole biological order? And what of all the recurring miracles– the raising of Lazarus, the changing of water into wine, the curing of probable hundreds of hopelessly stricken people—did these things really happen, or are they myths?

You’d think sermons delivered at Christmas and Easter would focus in on such questions. Well, thy don’t. Nor are they mentioned in most churches at any other time. Why is this? Several reasons suggest themselves:

  1. Raising these such means raising doubts, and Christmas and Easter are not the time to raise doubts.
  2. Many clergy are not competent to answer them. Defending the truth of the faith is called apologetics. Hard as this is to believe, I’m told this subject has been virtually eliminated from most theology courses.
  3. As the 20th Century Christian essayist Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out, many people believe that having faith means “resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.” Well it doesn’t. What it does mean, however, is facing the reality that science itself is distinctly limited. It can tell us how man behaves. It cannot tell us how man ought to behave. That introduces realities far beyond the merely material.
  4. Thanks chiefly to the news media and headline hunting academics, people have come to believe that modern scholarship has destroyed the historical credibility of the New Testament. Precisely the opposite is true. All the textual discoveries of the last century have served to strengthen the historical authority of the four gospels.

However, nearly all the doubts raised by honest inquirers inevitably come down to one issue, raised by Jesus himself: “Who do men say that I am?” Today the popular response would be that Jesus was a benevolent and gentle teacher who preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. But his message was soon buried by theorists like St. Paul and replaced by a set of complex dogmas that few people can understand and fewer want to. Again, the precise opposite is true: Nearly all the Gospel references to Jesus’ divinity originate with Jesus himself: (“Before Abraham was, I AM”) (“The man who has seen me has seen God.”) (“Your sins are forgiven,”) and at his trial when the High Priest asks: “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus replies: “I AM, and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, coming in the clouds of heaven.” For this, he was convicted of blasphemy, and blasphemy it certainly was unless, course, it was true.

This article continues at [Ted Byfield Blog] Reflection on the recent ‘holiday’: Did this Christmas thing actually happen?

One Comment

  1. Kudos Ted! Having spent the New Year with 4 young men who were raised in a Christian home, and 3 of whom are either now agnostics or atheists, it is clear to see where this is coming from. Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, in their “Already Gone” book outline why these young folk are already gone, not at high school level, but actually earlier at the junior high and even elementary school grade level. Doubts about the veracity of Scripture are placed in their minds, and lack of a good apologetic is at the core of this trend. I have said in the past that we live in an academic world, and if we fail to address that, we will lose people, and especially young people to that academic challenge that is now largely dominated by agnostics and atheists. Serious models in cosmology, for example, really attack the whole issue of “What is reality?” If you doubt, just watch the Isaac Asimov lecture series hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson on “Nothing” or the “Simulated Universe” or issues surrounding ideas like a multiverse and you will soon see that leaders in the field of astrophysics are taking on more and more bizarre concepts of reality (Boltzmann Brain anyone?). So why would some “prophet” from the Middle East have any credibility whatsoever? As I said to these young men, if Christ Himself stood in front of them and shouted in their faces to repent, they wouldn’t do it. They’d be asking, “Is this real?”

    For me personally, the apologetic approach has scientifically investigatable opportunities. Our recent investigations into an obscure statement in Matthew 27:51 is just one such example. It’s not found in the other Gospels. This statement has been described as being a “literary embellishment” by even modern biblical scholars because it can’t be verified historically, or in plain English, “It’s a lie!” The statement is, “and the earth did quake and the rocks rent (torn).” Now either this was a lie of a scientifically observable event, or it was not. It can be investigated scientifically. You see, the sediments in the Dead Sea are affected by earthquakes and those physical events leave their mark in the sediments, similar to what you might think in terms of a seismograph in terms of what they do to record modern earthquakes. These disturbed rocks are called seismites, and in the Dead Sea, the advantage is that they can be calibrated by year. So what did we find on our research trip there in 2014? On the Lisan Peninsula of Jordan, a Muslim and a skeptic agnostic part of our team were able to count the layers down to the time of Christ, and at the 33 AD level, a small but clearly identifiable seismite was found. What is its real significance? As a Muslim lawyer friend said to me after seeing the presentation I made, “Because you can demonstrate that this obscure passage of your Good Book can be verified by what you see in the rocks, then by implication, the context in which that statement is found can also be implied to be true!” (Crucifixion/Resurrection event) As a lawyer, he got it! Millions don’t, including many Christians! As Christians, we don’t buy into the tales of Mormonism, or any other religious belief that has no foundation, but we depend on the sure Word of God. Our young people are not taught, and as a result, they don’t know and thus find it hard to believe.

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